12 Days

12 DaysCreator: June Kim
Publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781598166910
Released: November 2006

June Kim is a Korean-born comics artist and illustrator who currently lives and works in the United States. Although some of her short comics had previously been collected in various anthologies, 12 Days was her first and, as far as I know, only graphic novel to have been published. What I can say for certain is that 12 Days was my introduction to Kim and her work. 12 Days was released by Tokyopop in 2006. The book’s cover design is really quite lovely with silver foil line work and striking red accents. Tokyopop didn’t always take such care with the presentation of its releases, so this was nice to see. 12 Days is at least partially based on a true story—a sad tale that a stranger told to Kim about her ex-girlfriend. Kim herself originally developed the story of 12 Days while getting over a breakup in her sophomore year of college. However, it wasn’t until 12 Days was picked up by Tokyopop that she completed the graphic novel.

On the way back from her honeymoon, Noah was in a lethal car accident. That was a month ago. Noah’s death hits her ex-girlfriend Jackie hard. Already a wreck from their breakup, Jackie is faced with the reality that she has now completely lost the love of her life. And so she devises a way to forget and finally let go. Over the course of twelve days she will drink Noah’s ashes as part of a personal ritual. Somehow Jackie convinces Nick, Noah’s half-brother, to steal some of his sister’s ashes for her from the urn on his parents’ mantle. It’s under these strange circumstances that the two most important people in Noah’s life meet. Nick and Jackie are each struggling to accept and cope with Noah’s death in their own ways. Their shared experience becomes a source of comfort as much as it is a source of pain. They both loved Noah dearly and it will take far more than twelve days to ever change that.

Kim’s style in 12 Days is influenced by both manga and manhwa as well as by independent comics. A prominent theme in both the artwork and narrative of 12 Days is reflection. This can be seen in Kim’s use of mirrors in the graphic novel, but also in the page layouts and panel composition. Jackie and Nick’s actions and how they are captured in the artwork often parallel or echo each other, providing yet another tenuous connection between the two of them. The narrative itself isn’t linear. Much of the story is told through the flashbacks, dreams, and memories that intrude upon Nick and Jackie’s lives. It’s as if a mirror containing all of their thoughts of Noah has been shattered and they are left picking up the pieces—a fitting metaphor for the grieving process. Some of the transitions can be a little difficult to follow at first, but overall it as a remarkably effective approach.

As a whole 12 Days is a very reflective and introspective work. There is intensity and drama but it’s not overblown; the graphic novel tends to be rather intimate and quiet. Despite the realistic portrayal of the complexities of grief, family, love, and loss, 12 Days is not overwhelmingly bleak or depressing. The graphic novel can certainly be heartbreaking considering Noah’s death, the circumstances surrounding her and Jackie’s breakups, and some of society’s prevailing attitudes towards same-sex love, but there is also a fair amount of humor in 12 Days that keeps things from getting too heavy or dark. Even while dealing with the tragedies in their lives, Jackie and Nick, who are both endearingly eccentric, are still able to joke around and tease each other. Sometimes that humor can be a bittersweet reminder of what they have lost, though. 12 Days is a work that holds extraordinarily up well to multiple readings. In fact, I think I enjoyed and appreciated its subtleties even more after reading it several times.

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 3: The Vast Spread of the Seas

Author: Fuyumi Ono
Illustrator: Akihiro Yamada

Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
U.S. Publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781427802590
Released: November 2009
Original release: 1994

The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third book in Fuyumi Ono’s series of fantasy light novels The Twelve Kingdoms. In Japan the first two novels of the series were each released in two parts, technically making The Vast Spread of the Seas, published in 1994, the fifth volume of The Twelve Kingdoms. However, in the English-language edition of the series The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third volume. Tokyopop first released Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander’s English translation of the novel early on in 2009 as a hardcover. Later that year it was released again in a paperback edition. Tokyopop’s release of The Vast Spread of the Seas retains the illustrations by Akihiro Yamada. I quite enjoyed the first two books in The Twelve Kingdoms, so I was looking forward to reading The Vast Spread of the Seas.

The kingdom of En has fallen upon difficult times. The previous king drove the country to ruin and many of its people either died or fled during his vicious reign. Much of En became a wasteland and demons prowled the wilds. At first Shoryu, En’s new king divinely appointed by the kingdom’s kirin Rokuta, gives En’s people hope for a better life. But much to the dismay of his ministers, it soon becomes clear that Shoryu would rather galavant about the country than focus on the kingdom’s administration. Many of those in the provincial governments are also frustrated by Shoryu’s seeming lack of motivation and the slow restoration of En. Atsuyu, the acting regent of the province of Gen, plans to take matters into his own hands if the king continues to refuse to address En’s problems. With civil war brewing, Shoryu will be forced to abandon his inscrutable style of rule if he is to put an end to the rebellion and maintain the peace. But even then his decisions continue to confound those that serve him.

Although The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third novel in The Twelve Kingdoms, chronologically it takes place before the first two and isn’t directly related plot-wise. However, the volume does focus on Shoryu and Rokuta who have played small but incredibly important roles in both Sea of Shadow and Sea of Wind. Reading the first two books does provide a little more insight into Shoryu and Rokuta’s characters and what people think of them, but for the most part The Vast Spread of the Seas stands on its own. It explores their pasts, both before and after their association with En, as well as a critical period early in Shoryu’s reign as the king. Because I have read the previous volumes in The Twelve Kingdoms I knew how some of the events in The Vast Spread of the Seas would ultimately end, but it was still very interesting to see how they played out and how Shoryu dealt with them.

A large part of The Vast Spread of the Seas delves into court politics and intrigue. Atsuyu’s viewpoints are considered to be heretical and even dangerous, but his challenging of a system of authority that has failed its people is understandable and he raises some very legitimate concerns. Unfortunately, his criticisms are never fully addressed in The Vast Spread of the Seas. What is established is that Shoryu is a much keener ruler than he lets on and that he cares about his people immensely. Actions that seem to make no sense actually have significant purpose. He doesn’t allow himself to be limited or constrained by what is expected of him as a king; Shoryu is incredibly creative and shrewed in his administration of the kingdom and very few people actually realize it. It’s no wonder that he later becomes so admired and respected as a ruler despite his quirks and unorthodoxy.

Happy Mania, Volume 1

Creator: Moyoco Anno
U.S. publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781591821694
Released: April 2003
Original release: 1996

Happy Mania was my introduction to the work of Moyoco Anno. The series was actually one of her earliest professional works and was the first of her manga to be released in English, preceding Flowers & Bees by about half a year. Happy Mania, Volume 1 was first published in Japan in 1996. Tokyopop released the English-language edition in 2003. I believe that Happy Mania was one of Tokyopop’s first shrink-wrapped, mature manga. It was also one of the first, if not the first josei manga—manga intended for an adult female audience—to be released in English. If I recall correctly, Happy Mania was also the first josei manga that I ever read. What I don’t remember is how I learned about Happy Mania or why I picked up the eleven-volume series to begin with. I’m glad that I did, though; it ended up being an unexpected surprise. And I’m happy to give Happy Mania another, closer look for the Moyoco Anno Manga Moveable Feast.

Twenty-four-year old Kayoko Shigeta wants only one thing in her life—a boyfriend. Luckily for her, Shigeta’s love horoscope seems to indicate that the right guy for her is just around the corner. Having been dumped almost a year earlier, she’s not about to let her chance at true love slip her by. In fact, she takes a job at a local book store in order to meet more men, hoping to find her mate for life. But for one reason or another, Shigeta just can’t seem to land a long-term boyfriend. She does have plenty of flings, though. But the men she pursues and attracts simply aren’t interested in a committed relationship. Well, there is Takahashi—Shigeta’s coworker who is genuinely in love with her. But Shigeta isn’t about to give the awkward, geeky Takahashi a second glance. She wants the perfect boyfriend, someone much cooler and better looking. Shigeta just can’t understand what she’s doing wrong. Will she be doomed to be alone forever?

Happy Mania is very aptly named. Shigeta is the most manic character I have ever encountered in a manga. She’s a terrible person—incredibly self-absorbed, judgemental, impulsive, and selfish. But her negative traits (which seem to be most of them) are so exaggerated that Happy Mania ends up being hilarious rather than annoying, assuming that the reader can put up with Shigeta to begin with. (I probably could never be her friend, but I do like her immensely as a character.) In an interview, Anno mentioned that she meant Happy Mania to be in part a cautionary tale. All of Shigeta’s romantic failures are brought upon by herself. It’s difficult to feel sorry for her when she’s flying from one obsessive love to the next or deliberately trying to ruin someone else’s happiness. Takahashi, the poor guy, is an entirely different matter and Shigeta’s complete opposite. He’ much too nice for his own good.

I think Happy Mania works because Shigeta is so outrageously over-the-top. One moment she’s in the depths of despair and in the next she’s caught up in her own delusions. A more realistic portrayal would have ended up being depressing rather than funny. And Happy Mania is very funny, even if it’s not always very kind. Truly horrible things happen to Shigeta and those around her (often as the direct result of her actions.) It’s all very melodramatic, and parts of Happy Mania may at first hardly be believable, but underneath are some very nasty grains of truth. Shigeta’s obsession with finding true love is something that many people can probably identify with, but woe be the person who actually follows her example. The first volume of Happy Mania actually provides some great dating advice—just think of what Shigeta would do in any given situation and then, whatever you do, don’t do it. In real life, Shigeta would be utterly exhausting to have as a friend. Thankfully, Happy Mania isn’t real life and provides a buffer against her mania.

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 2: Sea of Wind

Author: Fuyumi Ono
Illustrator: Akihiro Yamada

Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
U.S. Publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781427802583
Released: February 2009
Original release: 1993

Sea of Wind is the second novel in Tokyopop’s English-language release of Fuyumi Ono’s fantasy light novel series The Twelve Kingdoms illustrated by Akihiro Yamada. The novel was originally published in Japan as two separate volumes, both of which were released in 1993 under the title Sea of Wind, Shore of Labyrinth. Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander’s English translation of Sea of Wind was originally published in hardcover by Tokyopop’s Pop Fiction imprint in 2008 before being released in a paperback edition in 2009. I very much enjoyed Sea of Shadow, the first novel in The Twelve Kingdoms, and so was looking forward to reading the second volume a great deal. Technically, Sea of Wind is a prequel of sorts. Although they are not directly related, the events in Sea of Wind take place before those explored in Sea of Shadow.

Before his birth, the kirin of the kingdom of Tai was swept away by a great shoku, a terrifying storm that rips between worlds. Although the search for him began immediately, it is an unprecedented ten years before the kirin is able to be found. Having been lost in the world Over There, Taiki’s return to the world into which he should have been born is celebrated. Taiki never really fit in Over There but because he has been gone for so long he doesn’t quite fit in in the world that is welcoming him home, either. He has much to learn about the world he now inhabits and, more importantly, about himself. The kirin play a critical role and Taiki is desperately needed by Tai. But without the knowledge and powers that should have come naturally to him, Taiki must first conquer his own inadequacies before he can fulfill his role.

After the initial chaos surrounding Taiki’s disappearance, Sea of Wind begins fairly benignly. Taiki’s welcome home is a warm one and he is treated very kindly. But as the novel progresses danger and darkness are introduced to the story. The portrayal of Taiki’s growth as a character is particularly well done. His fear, confusion, and distress is almost palpable as he struggles with his newly discovered obligations and responsibilities. Taiki is plagued by doubt and guilt. He wants to please those around him and is terrified of making a mistake. He can hardly be blamed—the fate of an entire kingdom rests on his tiny, inexperienced shoulders. Most of the other characters aren’t nearly as well developed as Taiki, but Sea of Wind really is his story more than anything else.

Although Sea of Wind is the second book in The Twelve Kingdoms, it stands quite well on its own. However, there are some scenes that will be more meaningful to someone who has read Sea of Shadow as well. In particular is the appearance of Keiki, another kirin who was introduced in Sea of Shadow. He plays an important role in Sea of Wind, too, and his interactions with Taiki are wonderful. A few of the other characters from Sea of Shadow also make their return in Sea of Wind, which I was very happy to see. As for the story itself, Ono still has the tendency to infodump from time to time. However, I find the world of The Twelve Kingdoms to be so fascinating that I usually didn’t mind too much. I am still thoroughly enjoying the series and am looking forward to reading the next volume, The Vast Spread of the Seas.

Welcome to the N.H.K.

Author: Tatsuhiko Takimoto 
Translator: Lindsey Akashi
U.S. publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781427802569
Released: October 2007
Original release: 2005

Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s novel Welcome to the N.H.K. was first published in Japan in 2002. The English translation by Lindsey Akashi was based off of the 2005 Japanese edition of the novel and was released by Tokyopop in 2007. I don’t remember exactly how I first learned about Welcome to the N.H.K. but somehow I gained the impression that it was one of the best books to come out of Tokyopop’s short lived Pop Fiction line. Perhaps surprisingly, I was aware of the novel Welcome to the N.H.K. before I was aware of either the twenty-four episode anime adaptation or the eight volume manga series (also published by Tokyopop) which was based on the novel. Both the manga and the anime are much easier to come by—the Welcome to the N.H.K. novel is unfortunately long out of print and hard to find. And when you do come across a copy it tends to be rather expensive. I count myself lucky to actually own the book.

Satou Tatsuhiro is a twenty-year-old hikikomori—a young recluse who has shut himself away from the world. His family doesn’t know it yet, but he has dropped out of college and is living off of the allowance they send to him. Satou rarely leaves his small, cluttered apartment except for food, but even going to buy groceries is an ordeal for him. Normally he sleeps for sixteen hours, waking up long enough to eat, drink, and maybe throw together a concoction of over-the-counter drugs in an attempt to make himself feel better before falling back to sleep again. And so it is more by chance than anything else that he happens to meet a girl named Misaki, who is just a little odd herself. She is determined to make Satou her “project” and cure him of his hikikomori ways. Satou’s not entirely sure what to make of that or what to do about her. However, the two fall into a strange sort of friendship whether they mean to or not.

As he reveals in the afterword, Tatsuhiko Takimoto himself is a self-proclaimed hikikomori (or NEET, a more socially acceptable term). I wasn’t aware of this fact until after reading Welcome to the N.H.K. Inevitably, Takimoto drew on his own experiences and feelings as a hikikomori while writing the novel, lending to the authenticity of the main character. Understandably, it was a difficult task for the author to write the book. Takimoto imagines readers’ responses to Welcome to the N.H.K. as “It’s really funny. But it made me cry a little, too.” I completely agree with the sentiment. If it wasn’t for the humor, the novel would be terribly depressing. Welcome to the N.H.K. is in turn funny, even hilarious, and heartbreaking. Even so, while the humor may often be self-denigrating, Takimoto is never cruel.

The translation and adaptation work of Welcome to the N.H.K. is exceptional. It reads incredibly naturally, even considering the occasional end note. I was particularly impressed because significant sections of the novel are nearly stream-of-conscious, a style of writing that can be difficult to pull off well. Welcome to the N.H.K. nails it. The entire story is told directly from Satou’s perspective regardless of his current state of mind. This includes both his good and bad trips. Although Welcome to the N.H.K. can be a bit silly or goofy, it is also dealing with some very serious and mature issues and themes: drug use, sexual fantasies (including lolicon and erotic video games), religion, abuse, and suicide, just to name a few. It can be an uncomfortable experience for the reader—the story proceeds innocently enough only to repeatedly turn around to hit you hard in the gut when you’re not expecting it—but Welcome to the N.H.K. is a fantastic novel. I was glad to discover that it was just as good if not better than I was led to believe.